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How Right-wing is too Right-wing for Western leaders?

Joe Biden holds hands with Giorgia Meloni at the G7 meeting in Hiroshima

May 22, 2023 - 10:00am

When Donald Trump was still President and Theresa May still Prime Minister they were photographed holding hands. More than once, in fact.

May’s critics seized upon the images as a way of linking Brexit to Trump. What more proof could there be that these abominations went hand-in-hand? 

Five years on, we find ourselves gazing upon another touching scene. This time it’s Joe Biden holding hands with Italy’s Giorgia Meloni at the G7 summit in Japan. Compared to Trump and May, the body language is less awkward — indeed, they seem very happy in one another’s company.

But what will Biden’s liberal supporters make of that? Meloni, after all, is the first Right-wing populist to become the leader of a Western European country since the Second World War. Her party, the Brothers of Italy, has a convoluted history, but it can be fairly described as the successor to the Italian Social Movement (MSI), which was founded by supporters of Benito Mussolini in 1946.

Though the MSI changed its name and renounced its fascist past in 1995, Meloni’s critics note that she joined its youth wing in 1992. Left-wing commentators were thus duly appalled when Rishi Sunak warmly welcomed his Italian counterpart on her visit to London last month.

Of course, the Left expects no better from the hated Tories. And yet the G7 demonstrates that Brexit Britain is no outlier — just as Meloni is no pariah. The evident warmth of her relationship with Biden (and also the EU’s Ursula von der Leyen) proves that populists can join the club.

So does that mean that the cordon sanitaire that once excluded the far-Right from mainstream western politics has crumbled? Well, that would depend on whether Meloni still qualifies as far-Right.

Her party’s past is problematic, but in power she’s proven herself to be a staunch Atlanticist. Far from cosying up to Putin, she’s positioned herself as an outspoken defender of Ukrainian sovereignty. However, she has elsewhere enacted policies and used rhetoric that do not go hand-in-hand with the liberal consensus. Her language on immigration, for instance, or her government’s stance against adoption rights for same-sex couples.

In any case, it’s clear that the other leaders of the G7 — and the European Union — have decided that they can live with her deviations.

The real question is whether the cordon sanitaire has been abandoned altogether — or merely re-erected further to the Right. A key test will be what happens in Austria and France, where Right-wing populists are riding high in the polls.

Here, we need to distinguish between the two main types of European Right-wing populism. Whereas Meloni’s party belongs to the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally is affiliated to the Identity and Democracy (ID) group — as is the Austrian Freedom Party. ID populism is more extreme and much friendlier to Putin than the ECR variety. 

ID parties have entered national governments before, but only as junior coalition partners. Neither the EU nor the G7 has had to deal with an ID prime minister or president in its ranks. But if this did happen, the establishment would likely make a further accommodation. 

We may yet witness the spectacle of President Biden holding hands with President Le Pen.


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

peterfranklin_

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Matt M
Matt M
1 year ago

Why do US presidents insist on holding hands with other leaders? I have worked for 30 years but no colleague, client or consultant has ever asked to hold my hand. Maybe I’m doing something wrong.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt M

You could try identifying as female?

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt M

I don’t know about other presidents, but this clown is doing it so he doesn’t fall down.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt M

Otherwise Sir Niall de Mentia would fall over…

Andrew F
Andrew F
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt M

I guess with Biden it was case of taking geriatric to nearest bathroom.
With Trump and May it might had been the case of May stopping Trump reaching for her other bits?

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt M

You could try identifying as female?

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt M

I don’t know about other presidents, but this clown is doing it so he doesn’t fall down.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt M

Otherwise Sir Niall de Mentia would fall over…

Andrew F
Andrew F
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt M

I guess with Biden it was case of taking geriatric to nearest bathroom.
With Trump and May it might had been the case of May stopping Trump reaching for her other bits?

Matt M
Matt M
1 year ago

Why do US presidents insist on holding hands with other leaders? I have worked for 30 years but no colleague, client or consultant has ever asked to hold my hand. Maybe I’m doing something wrong.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

Right Wing is merely a term used by the themselves right wing- national socialist ” racism/LBGT/Eco” extremists for the silent majority in The US, UK and Europe, who actually seek more freedom of speech, smaller government and lower taxes… sadly our Tory party have not yet worked this out?

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
1 year ago

It’s so frustrating. It seems as the Tories have open goals at which they refuse to shot

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
1 year ago

It’s so frustrating. It seems as the Tories have open goals at which they refuse to shot

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

Right Wing is merely a term used by the themselves right wing- national socialist ” racism/LBGT/Eco” extremists for the silent majority in The US, UK and Europe, who actually seek more freedom of speech, smaller government and lower taxes… sadly our Tory party have not yet worked this out?

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 year ago

I propose, me, as the archytype, the touchstone, sitting right on the fault line. Anyone to the right of me is “too Right wing”. Those to the left of me are of course, clowns, in the words of the song.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 year ago

I propose, me, as the archytype, the touchstone, sitting right on the fault line. Anyone to the right of me is “too Right wing”. Those to the left of me are of course, clowns, in the words of the song.

Peter Kwasi-Modo
Peter Kwasi-Modo
1 year ago

The article says: “Meloni, after all, is the first Right-wing populist to become the leader of a Western European country since the Second World War.” AntĂłnio de Oliveira Salazar was the dictator of Portugal until 1968 and Francisco Franco was the dictator of Spain until the 1975. Salazar might have avoided populist rhetoric, but still passes muster as a populist.
Ms Meloni is very meek and mild compared to that pair.

Last edited 1 year ago by Peter Kwasi-Modo
Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago

To be picky, all those leaders came to power before WWII. But your point is valid.
Giorgio Meloni is the democratically elected Prime Minister of Italy. That’s all that really needs to be said. Whether we like it or not is beside the point.
I disagree with the author about his supposed need to distinguish between two types of populist politicians – the “ECR” group and the “ID” group. The only distinction to be made is between politicians who are democratically elected in free and fair elections and those who are not. Noting that some in the second group are EU officials who seem to think they should have the authority to overrule those elected from the first group (and by implication their voters).
Not on board with the hand-holding though.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter B

Georgi… A!

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
1 year ago

Maybe he’s transitioned.

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago

Sorry ! Just figured out my error.

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
1 year ago

Maybe he’s transitioned.

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago

Sorry ! Just figured out my error.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter B

Georgi… A!

Andrew F
Andrew F
1 year ago

I think author means “came to power in democratic election”.

Andrew F
Andrew F
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew F

I forgot to add that they were leaders of their countries before Spain and Portugal became members of EU in 1986.

Andrew F
Andrew F
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew F

I forgot to add that they were leaders of their countries before Spain and Portugal became members of EU in 1986.

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago

To be picky, all those leaders came to power before WWII. But your point is valid.
Giorgio Meloni is the democratically elected Prime Minister of Italy. That’s all that really needs to be said. Whether we like it or not is beside the point.
I disagree with the author about his supposed need to distinguish between two types of populist politicians – the “ECR” group and the “ID” group. The only distinction to be made is between politicians who are democratically elected in free and fair elections and those who are not. Noting that some in the second group are EU officials who seem to think they should have the authority to overrule those elected from the first group (and by implication their voters).
Not on board with the hand-holding though.

Andrew F
Andrew F
1 year ago

I think author means “came to power in democratic election”.

Peter Kwasi-Modo
Peter Kwasi-Modo
1 year ago

The article says: “Meloni, after all, is the first Right-wing populist to become the leader of a Western European country since the Second World War.” AntĂłnio de Oliveira Salazar was the dictator of Portugal until 1968 and Francisco Franco was the dictator of Spain until the 1975. Salazar might have avoided populist rhetoric, but still passes muster as a populist.
Ms Meloni is very meek and mild compared to that pair.

Last edited 1 year ago by Peter Kwasi-Modo
Clive Williams
Clive Williams
1 year ago

There’s little doubt that Biden didn’t know where he was or even the date. As for holding hands with Meloni


Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago
Reply to  Clive Williams

…it was to prevent him from falling.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago
Reply to  Clive Williams

…it was to prevent him from falling.

Clive Williams
Clive Williams
1 year ago

There’s little doubt that Biden didn’t know where he was or even the date. As for holding hands with Meloni


Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
1 year ago

Only the left decides who is far right. The rest of us must meekly agree. Incidently, Meloni is lucky Joe didn’t bury his face in her hair. It’s one of his many endearing quirks in public. Many school girls have been photographed shrinking from his hands. The man can’t help himself.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
1 year ago

Only the left decides who is far right. The rest of us must meekly agree. Incidently, Meloni is lucky Joe didn’t bury his face in her hair. It’s one of his many endearing quirks in public. Many school girls have been photographed shrinking from his hands. The man can’t help himself.

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
1 year ago

Meloni is rather pretty with nice hair; the surprise therefore is that Joe didn’t sniff her! Poor woman.

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
1 year ago

Meloni is rather pretty with nice hair; the surprise therefore is that Joe didn’t sniff her! Poor woman.